Signs and Symptoms of an Infection After Surgery

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If you are recovering from surgery, you may be concerned about developing an infection in your incision or in your blood. Taking the proper steps to prevent an infection is important, but doing all the right things after surgery doesn’t guarantee that you will be infection-free.

Post-Surgery Signs of Infection
Illustration by Joshua Seong. © Verywell, 2018. 


In the first few weeks after surgery, inspect your incision daily for signs of infection. You may also want to take your temperature daily, preferably at the same time of day, to identify an infection earlier than you might otherwise.

It is possible to develop an infection in a location other than your incision after surgery. Urinary tract infections are common after surgery, especially in patients who had a urinary catheter during or after their procedure.

If you develop an infection or suspect that you may have an infection, it is important that you are able to identify it right away.

Your surgeon can provide antibiotics and any other therapies that are necessary to prevent the infection from spreading.

Types of Infection

While infections of an incision or the urinary tract are some of the most common infections after having surgery, it is also possible to have pneumonia, a serious lung infection. Surgery patients are at a higher risk than the average person to develop pneumonia, so the development of a cough in the days following the procedure should not be ignored.

Likewise, severe diarrhea should not be ignored after surgery. Clostridium difficile is a bacteria that can become an issue in the digestive tract after taking antibiotics—with or without surgery—and can become very serious if ignored.

Systemic Infection Symptoms

A systemic infection is an infection that is moving through your body. It most often has signs of fever and malaise.


Malaise is that you will feel tired and lacking in energy. You may sleep more than usual, or not feel up to doing your normal activities. These feelings are also common for patients who are recovering from surgery who do not have an infection.

The difference is that when recovering from surgery, most people feel a bit better each day, rather than feeling better for a few days then suddenly feeling exhausted and lethargic, as can happen with infection.


A fever is often accompanied by feeling chilled. A fever can also decrease your appetite, lead to dehydration and a headache. A low-grade fever (100 F or less) is common in the days following surgery. A fever of 101 or more should be reported to the surgeon.

Pain With Urination

A urinary tract infection is a common problem after surgery. Burning with urination, urgency, having to urinate frequently and lower abdominal pain can indicate there is a problem with your urinary tract.

Infected Surgical Incision Symptoms

Be aware of these signs:

  • Hot incision: An infected incision may feel hot to the touch. This happens as the body sends infection-fighting blood cells to the site of infection. Proper care of your surgical incision plays a significant role in preventing infection.
  • Swelling/hardening of the incision: An infected incision may begin to harden as the tissue underneath are inflamed. The incision itself may begin to appear swollen or puffy as well.
  • Redness: An incision that gets red, or has red streaks radiating from it to the surrounding skin may be infected. Some redness is normal at the incision site, but it should decrease over time, rather than becoming redder as the incision heals.
  • Drainage from the incision: Foul-smelling drainage or pus may begin to appear on an infected incision. It can range in color from blood-tinged to green, white or yellow. The drainage from an infected wound may also be thick, and in rare cases, chunky.
  • Pain: Your pain should slowly and steadily diminish as you heal. If your pain level at the surgery site increases for no apparent reason, you may be developing an infection in the wound. It is normal for increased pain if you “overdo it” with activity or you decrease your pain medication, but a significant and unexplained increase in pain should be discussed with your surgeon.

When to See a Doctor

An infection can become a very serious problem. Life-threatening infections can start with a very small area of infection, such as an infected tooth or even a small wound on the skin. A urinary tract infection can also become sepsis, an infection that begins to spread through the bloodstream.

Sepsis can become septic shock, which is a life-threatening infection that decreases blood pressure and can lead to organ failure. When septic shock is present, intensive care is needed to support the patient until the infection can be controlled.

A Word From Verywell

Infection is one of the most common complication patients face in the days and weeks following surgery, and it is worth the effort to prevent infection whenever possible. Infection delays healing, can increase scarring and can lead to a much longer recovery for the patient. Infection means more pain, and in the worst cases, hospitalization. 

The good news is that prevention of all of these problems can be as simple as washing hands frequently and using hand sanitizer when a sink is not available. Hand washing is the best way to prevent infection, and while there are other tactics that can also reduce risk, keeping hands clean continues to be the best way to stay healthy after surgery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the risk of developing a surgical site infection?

    Between 2% and 5% percent of patients who undergo surgery develop a surgical site infection (SSI).

  • How quickly can an infection develop after surgery?

    Surgical site infections usually develop within 30 days. However, with surgeries to place some sort of implant, an infection may occur within 90 days.

  • What are the different kinds of surgical site infections?

    There are three types of surgical site infections (SSIs):

    • Superficial incisional: Limited to the incision area
    • Deep incisional: Occurs under the incision and affects muscle and surrounding tissue
    • Organ or space: Involves any other area of the body, including an organ or space between organs

  • How common is pneumonia after surgery?

    Pneumonia is the third most common infection associated with surgery. In studies, the incidence of pneumonia developing within 48 to 72 hours of entering the hospital for surgery has ranged from 2.7% to nearly 29%.

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14 Sources
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